Crushing the Grapes of Expectations: Wineglass Half Marathon Race Report

I shivered in the cold, foggy air. It was minutes until the start of the Wineglass Half Marathon. The enormity of my task struck me – 8-minute miles for 13.1 miles. I audibly moaned. A girl heard me, turned around, and smiled in comfort. I shook my head, “It’s not the distance. I’m scared of the pace.” It wasn’t all that long ago that 8 min/mi was my hard tempo pace. Memories of failed tempo attempts of 3 to 4 miles with my husband, Ben, flashed through my head. I had to maintain this pace for 13.1 freaking miles. I felt sick in my stomach with fear. I drew comfort from the other women who turned around and expressed their sympathy and understanding. We were in this together. In our own way, we all were facing a challenge.

For more than two years I had been chasing after this goal of going sub-1:45 for a half marathon. For two years I missed and had to draw solace over moral victories in knowing I did my best under the conditions, whether they be weather, health, life stress, poor training, or simply not having my day. Two years of frustrations built up in me and I was wracked with irrational fear that perhaps, this was it — I peaked after a few paltry years of training. There’s some truth to the cliche that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. This past summer I overhauled my training. Rather than focusing on speed (intervals, tempo, fast finishes, etc) as I had been, instead I focused on increasing my aerobic base. This meant a lot of slow miles. My overall weekly mileage was pretty much the same as last year, but instead of running three times a week pretty fast, I ran five times a week pretty slow.

Sunday morning for Wineglass — Oct. 1 — the weather was absolutely perfect for running. It was 39 degrees, overcast, and no wind. I couldn’t have asked for better conditions. I vacillated between immediately throwing off an old PJ top right before the start or wearing it for a mile or two until I warmed up a bit more. At the last second, I decided to ditch it.

Before the start of the race, I found Karen, the 1:45 pacer, who was going to run an even pace of 7:58 with a target time of 1:44:30. Knowing that I do best with a negative split, I decided that I was going to start way behind her (but in front of the 1:50 pacer) and slowly try to catch up to her, run with her for a few miles, and then if I was feeling it, slowly pull away from her.

A horn blared signaling our start. A rush of eager runners flowed past me. I walked slowly like a condemned man heading toward the guillotine. Once I crossed the starting line, it was on. Internally I was freaking out the first three miles. The early miles in a half marathon or a marathon are supposed to feel easy and slow. It did NOT feel easy and slow. I didn’t know how I was going to be expected to carry the pace if I was working from the very beginning. But by mile 3, I caught up to Karen as I had expected and settled in with the group. I realized that I was running well and that it was going to be okay. It wasn’t going to be a perfect day with race magic when my legs are snappy and gravity was the only force that kept me on Earth, but I could tell that this was going to be a good day. I can trust my training to carry me through on a good day.

By mile 5, I stopped freaking out and realized that I was actually going to do this. I knew that if I stuck with Karen for the rest of the race, I would nail my sub-1:45 goal. It was going to be a done deal. Having chased after this goal in vain for two years, the prudent thing to do was to stick with Karen. Go for the sure goal, especially when I had missed it in so many prior races.

But rather than being content with the sure accomplishment, I debated with myself about how badly I wanted a sub-1:44 for the next two miles. There’s a fine line between having a great race and going out too aggressively and completely imploding. If I were feeling really great and knowing that this was my day, there was no doubt in my mind about going for the aggressive goal. But I wasn’t feeling great. I was feeling good. Solid. I could be conservative and ensure a really good race and PR. Or I could risk it, risk blowing another PR, by going for an aggressive goal. Which was it going to be? How badly did I want the sub-1:44?

At mile 7, I decided I wanted the sub-1:44 pretty badly. I told Karen bye and she wished me luck. I took off, leaving the 1:45 group behind me.

I didn’t take off that quickly. For the next three miles, I kept hearing Karen’s voice of encouraging her group and her laughter haunting — no, taunting me — reminding me that I was still not running as fast as I thought I was. It was galling, honestly. What could you do? I ran what I ran and I couldn’t sprint just then because it was still too many miles to the finish. I contemplated falling back in with Karen and trying again at mile 10. At a couple of the hairpin turns, I took the opportunity to see where the 1:45 group was. Seeing that they were about 30 seconds behind me made me feel a bit better. I could still do this.

At mile 10, with only a 5K left to go, it was time to move up a gear. This was the danger point for me in a half marathon. I’m pretty good at running solidly for 10 miles, but I really need to work on holding everything together for the final three. Ben promised to be waiting with Bandit for me somewhere between mile 11 and 12. I whispered to myself over and over, “Another mile until you can look for Benny and Bandit. One more mile.” I kept running. At mile 11, I started looking for Ben and Bandit and kept my hearing sharp for Ben’s voice. While I was getting tired at this point, I was amazed that I wasn’t falling apart. Yes, I was tired, but not so tired that I thought I had to stop. Instead, I was thinking, “I have ENDURANCE! I can keep running!” As long as I kept focused, I could still keep running sub-8:00 miles. Finally, just before mile 12, I heard Ben yelling for me. He took several photos of me and then ran close to me on the empty sidewalk. They kept me company for about a half mile until I ran over the final bridge. Because of the crowds on the sidewalks, Ben and Bandit couldn’t run down East Market Street to the finish line with me.

I was overwhelmed with joy when I crossed the finish line. The official time was 1:43:27 — a PR by over 3 minutes. I didn’t just get my A-goal of 1:45, but I CRUSHED IT. I got my beautiful green glass medal and stumbled to get some food. Ben found me past the finish line and I was completely delirious with happiness.

“Where’s the PR bell? I need to ring the PR bell,” I repeated to him. It was going to be my first time ringing a PR bell. All the other times that races had a PR bell, I didn’t get a PR, so I was on a mission to ring that bell! Ben patiently walked around with me until we found the bell and I proudly rang it.

Have you ever changed everything about your training in order to achieve a PR? What’s the longest that you’ve gone before you got another PR for a particular distance?

I'm an academic, a runner, and a New York cliché. I write about the science of exercise, training, and the culture of running. My current goals are a sub-23:00 5K (achieved on 4/22/17 with 22:48) and a sub-1:45 HM (achieved on 10/1/17). Now what?

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  1. Congratulations on a huge PR, and such a great race. It was fun reading your race report and how you found the confidence to stick with it, and even go for a harder goal, when you felt “solid but not great.”

  2. Congrats on the PR! Sorry I didn’t see you out there, I was chasing people around the marathon course so didn’t get to the finish area until well after you were done! I think it’s awesome you did the training overhaul to see what the results would be- not everyone is willing to take that chance!

  3. I love reading race reports and this one was great–well-written , suspenseful, exciting, yet concise…and what a happy ending! Congrats on crushing your old PR.

  4. Congratulations! I had a similar experience trying to break 1:40 in the half, hovering just above and below for some time, before finally getting that perfect day and running 1:35! 🙂

    Great report!